Lieutenant Nikolai Rachenko (Dolph Lundgren) is a so-called Spetsnaz, one of the Soviet military elite who are renowned for their success in various operations around the world, but his latest assignment appears to have disgruntled him. He is expected to travel to Africa to quell a rebellion by some of the locals, and the Russians and Cubans in collaboration there want him to hunt down one man, Ango Sundhata (Ruben Nthodi), the leader of the insurgency, though he is proving very elusive. On arrival at the Soviet base, Rachenko proceeds to get drunk and start a fight in the resident bar, which sees him locked in the cell overnight. It just so happens, his fellow prisoners know Sundhata...
Although plenty of Western filmmakers made movies either in South Africa or in South African-controlled territories, such as Namibia where this was shot, for some reason Red Scorpion was the straw that broke the camel's back when it came to the protests about this practice. Never mind that exploitation producers such as Harry Alan Towers regularly did business there, or that many recognisable stars appeared in those productions (the equivalent of bands like Queen playing Sun City), blind eyes were turned for years until Red Scorpion came along and suddenly it was not cool to be making movies with the backing of the Apartheid-era government there, not that it really was before, either.
There were repercussions to this: Warners pulled out of producing, the cast and crew were stranded in South Africa for months until they could get things up and running once again, and the film struggled to get distribution after all that because of the political controversy. A lot of the reason this was completed was down to the actions of its producer Jack Abramoff, a right wing lobbyist who was funding the anti-Communist movie and was determined, even in the era of Gorbachev's Glasnost, to create a work that painted the dealings stemming from behind the Iron Curtain in as badly a light as possible, no matter that such movies were seriously behind the times by 1988 when Red Scorpion emerged, mostly on home video. Western movies were reluctant to let it go.
That was because the Red menace had been extremely lucrative for them, with countless action flicks depicting the Commies as the obvious villains while the American heroes mowed them down with various weaponry, and to give up a profitable thing was not going to have them admit the world was changing. All this leaves Red Scorpion more of a relic than most, mixing the Apartheid-era issues with those very eighties, right wing politics as Dolph perspired his way through his desert-set scenes, bantering (sort of, Rachenko is pretty taciturn) with American journalist M. Emmet Walsh whose catchphrase is "Fuckin' A!", swearing his head off at every opportunity which passes for humour, though watching the portly actor go nuts with a shotgun while hanging out the window of a speeding truck is arguably funnier.
Rachenko escapes with Walsh's journo (who was arrested because the Russkies hate free speech, obviously) and the pal of Sundhata (Al White) and that truck chase ensues, followed by a remarkable scene where Dolph starts to take off his breeks and they explode, or at least that's what it looks like. All this is part of a conscience-raising exercise for the Communist muscleman, who gets to go on the African equivalent of a vision quest as he wanders the deserts until he meets a friendly bushman (Regopstaan) who makes him a pair of flip-flops and has him marked with the tattoo of the title, more of a brand than a tattoo. Which is very nice one supposes, but does ensure Rachenko is sidelined for most of the second half of the plot as the stuff with the helicopter gunships and rocket launchers and what have you is carrying on without him until the last ten minutes when Dolph gets to wield the super-machine gun type thing, somewhat hilariously blowing off the grenade arm of the man trying to destroy our hero. It's not much, but you take your entertainment where you find it here. Music by Jay Chattaway.